Issuing an etymological “executive order”

Executive, first found in Middle English, goes all the way back to Latin, but it’s not until the presidency of Abraham Lincoln that we see executive order

Since taking office, President Trump has issued eight executive orders. As his most controversial directive, the travel ban, goes to court, let’s go into the history of the word executive and the phrase executive order.

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Why do we call it the president’s “Cabinet”?

With some controversy, President-elect Donald Trump has been assembling his new Cabinet. But new cabinets are for kitchens, right? Why do we call these advisors, who head the executive departments of the US government, a president’s Cabinet?

Cabinet members

In the 16th century, there were two main meanings of cabinet. The first, and earliest, cabinet named a “case” that kept secret valuables, like jewels or letters, safe. This cabinet, later ornamental and fitted with shelves and drawers, became the furniture in our kitchens, bathrooms, TV rooms, and offices.

The other cabinet named a “small, private chamber.” Leaders would meet with political advisors in such places, apparently, to discuss the most sensitive and confidential matters. Over the first half of the 1600s, and by the metaphorical process known as metonymy, cabinet became the official name for the people who met in a such a room to advise a leader.

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A filing cabinet, which the Cabinet of the United States surely has quite a lot of. Image courtesy of freeimages.com.

Cabinet-makers

The Oxford English Dictionary credits the influential polymath Francis Bacon with the earliest recorded use of cabinet in a political context. In “Of Counsel,” an essay first published in 1612, Bacon mused on some of the challenges (“inconveniences”) of giving counsel to a ruler, including the loss of secrecy, undermining of authority, and the risk of betrayal. He then notes:

For which inconveniences, the doctrine of Italy, and practice of France, in some kings’ times, hath introduced cabinet counsels; a remedy worse than the disease.

Bacon was no fan, it seems, of cabinets. But by the time he acceded the English throne in 1625, King Charles is said to have formally introduced a “Cabinet Council” for additional, high-level, and possibly even more secret advisement alongside his Privy Council.

Now, the word cabinet doesn’t explicitly appear in the US Constitution. Article II, Section 2 does state the President

may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices.

On September 11, 1789, George Washington sent his nominations for four such officers to the Senate, which it approved: Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, the first-to-be-confirmed Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph. (Some include Postmaster General Samuel Osgood in this body.)

But it was James Madison, as far as we know, who first referred to these men as “the president’s cabinet,” drawing on what was by then a well-established term in British government. The presidential Cabinet has since expanded, including some name changes, to 15 departments. The most recent department in the cabinet, the Department of Homeland Security, was formed following a different September 11. 

Inside the cabinet

What do we know about the history of the word cabinet? Scholars generally take cabinet to be a diminutive form of cabin: “a little cabin.” Indeed, cabin is no secret in the shape or sound of the word cabinet, but our associations of the word with cupboards and government are so strong that we often don’t connect it to those shelters we escape to in the woods.

Cabin, originally a “temporary shelter” in the late 1300s, derives from the French cabane, “hut,” in turn from Late Latin capanna. Capanna, whose further origins are a mystery, also yields the Spanish cabana. A few have claimed it’s Celtic or Illyrian. And some note cabine referred to a “room for gambling” in an old French dialect. Talk about shady, backroom dealings. 

But how do we reconcile cabinet, the small room, with cabinet, the case and furniture? The French source of cabinet may have been influenced by the Italian gabinetto, a “little cage or basket,” hence a kind of “chest” or “closet.” This gabinetto is a diminutive form of gabbia, which may be ultimately rooted in the Latin cavus, “hollow,” origin of cave and even cage.

And no cabinet member ever wants to be boxed in or in the dark in a president’s administration. As Francis Bacon observed in “Of Counsel”: “The greatest trust between man and man is the trust of giving counsel.”

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“Feisty”: you can blame it on the dog

As many are describing it, last night’s debate between Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in Brooklyn, New York was “feisty.”

I’ve read others characterize the candidates’ sharp exchanges as a “dogfight” and full of “hot air,” but these descriptions are just as “feisty,” if we look to the surprising etymology of this word.

Into the woods

While the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests feisty in American English in 1896, an early usage in Horace Kephart’s 1913 book, Our Southern Highlanders, is telling: “’Feisty’… ‘means when a feller’s allers wigglin’ about, wantin’ ever’body to see him, like a kid when the preacher comes.’”

Kephart’s attention-seeking usage of feisty anticipates “fussy” and “fidgety,” an early meaning of  fidgety we might owe to the Appalachian culture of the Smoky Mountains, where his novel is set. Today, the “lively” and “aggressive” feisty still expresses this excitability, though the word has since evolved to focus on a kind of readiness to fight – and, if my ears are any measure, is said of women more than men. In his slang lexicography, Jonathon Green indeed records feisty as 20th-century U.S. slang for a “flirtatious, showy, and unscrupulous woman,” which also, perhaps, calls back Kephart’s early usage.

Barking up the etymological tree

For the etymology of feisty, we need to travel farther south, where a feist named a “small dog used in hunting small game (such as squirrels),” as the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary explains. The United Kennel Club, among others, officially registers the treeing feist and mountain feist today.

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This mountain feist is on the hunt. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Other variants of feist include fist, ficefyce, and even foist, if we look to a 1770 reference by George Washington. In March of that year, George Washington wrote in his diary: “Countess a hound bitch after being confind got loose and was lined before it was discovered by my Water dog once and a small foist looking yellow cur twice.”

I find it reassuring to know that even America’s legendary first president couldn’t completely control his dogs.

Leashed up on feist, of course, was English’s prolific adjectival suffix, -y.

In spite of their size, small dogs like feists have big personalities. Their quick energy, sharp barks, and often skittish behavior indeed suggest the kind of lively, aggressive temperament we associate with feisty. And, returning to Kephart,  feisty also evokes the squirmy restlessness, say, of a terrier less interested in one’s lap than what’s out the window.

As for the indie artist Feist, the moniker comes from her last name. Her first name is Leslie.

Send the dog out back

Now, feist takes its name from a fisting hound, dog, or cur, evidenced as early as the 1530s. Get your mind out of the gutter, but not completely: This fist, a verbal adjective, means “to break wind.”

The OED documents this fist in the 15th century, referring to the action – and aftermath of – flatulence. A fisting dog, then, was “stinky,” but not, as the record suggests, because it needed a bath.

Jonathon Green notes two historic explanations for why this flatulent fist became associated with dogs: Wentworth and Flexner’s American Slang Dictionary  maintain “the dog was so named because one’s own smells could be blamed on it,” while in the 19th century  it was suggested that “such dogs were not much bigger than a man’s fist.”

It’s unclear whether the “clenched hand” fist is actually related to “broken wind” fist, though the OED does cross-reference the former in the latter’s etymology.

For the deeper origins of fist, etymologists hypothesize an Old English verb *fistan and noun *fist, with widespread cognates in Germanic languages and a root in the Proto-Germanic *fistiz. Some philologists actually connect fist to its still-lingering counterpart fart through a root, *perd-, which is really just a Proto-Indo-European fart noise. (We can also thank this root for partridge, whose windy winging  I’ve discussed at Oxford Dictionaries).

Like fart, I suspect fist is ultimately a Germanic onomatopoeic whoopee cushion, so to speak. But whatever origin we ultimately blame fist on, I can’t blame you for, er, leaving the room when the TV debates get too feisty this long and heated presidential campaign season.

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